A St. Clair County judge on Wednesday vacated the guilty verdict of a man whose attorney argued prosecutors should have disclosed that the judge presiding over his jury trial was under federal investigation in a drug case.
The first-degree murder jury trial of Gregory Muse, 55, was presided over by former St. Clair County Judge Michael Cook. Muse was convicted of first-degree murder in March.
Circuit Judge Robert Haida listened to the arguments during a motion hearing and determined that Muse should be given a new trial. Cook resigned from the bench in May and now faces federal heroin and weapons charges. Cook has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Muse's motion to vacate the guilty verdict was based on the prosecution's failure to disclose the ongoing federal investigation of Cook. The arguments were presented by Muse's defense attorney, Erin Conner.
"Cook had an opportunity to recuse himself and prosecutors had the opportunity to ask for a substitute judge," Conner said. Conner argued that prosecutors should have disclosed the knowledge they had of the ongoing federal investigation of Cook and by failing to disclose that knowledge, the ability of Muse to receive a fair trial was undermined. Conner also argued that Cook had an ethical obligation to recuse himself from the trial and he did not do so.
Conner also argued that Cook appeared to slur his words during Muse's trial.
Deborah Phillips, an assistant state's attorney working for State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, argued that there was no evidence and the defense never claimed that Cook made any inappropriate rulings or errors during Muse's trial.
"That's the bottom line," she said.
Phillips also said that it's possible Cook's speech was slurred because he had to read 29 pages of jury instructions out loud.
Haida overturned Muse's conviction, explaining that he did so "in the interest of justice."
"My ruling in no way is based on criticism of the prosecutor's office for failure to disclose," he said. "As I sit here now, reviewing this matter, I can say with certainty that Gregory Muse needs a new trial."
Kelly has previously explained that his office could not share the information about the federal investigation of Cook because those involved in the investigation were under a federal nondisclosure agreement. If prosecutors asked for a continuance or a substitution of judge, they would have violated the nondisclosure agreement, which meant facing severe penalties from the federal government.
"Judges, public defenders and prosecutors are doing their level best to uphold their oaths and do their duty under the circumstances," Kelly said. "The court has ruled. We'll push on and prepare for trial."
Muse and Correy Ransom, 34, held up the Pawn Pros at 1115 State St. in East St. Louis at gunpoint on Aug. 27, 2011, according to police. As the two left the store with a plastic shopping bag and a pillowcase filled with jewelry, the pawnshop's owner, who legally possessed a gun, shot Ransom. Ransom was killed and Muse got away on foot. Muse was arrested a block away from the store. He was later charged in connection with the death of Ransom.
The week of Muse's trial, Cook met with Pike County Sheriff Paul Petty, who interviewed him regarding the death of Joe Christ, a longtime assistant state's attorney. Christ died at a Pike County hunting cabin owned by Cook's family. It was later revealed that Christ died of cocaine toxicity.
William Cosby, 29, of East St. Louis, previously convicted of first-degree murder, was granted a new trial earlier this month for the same reasons cited during Muse's motion hearing Wednesday. Cosby was convicted by a jury on April 26 of the first-degree murder of Antwan "Twix" Thomas, who was shot in the stomach outside an East St. Louis bar on April 9, 2012. His conviction came just over three weeks before Cook's arrest. Cook presided over the trial and all preliminary matters, motions and arguments in Cosby's case
A status conference for a new trial for Muse has been set for Dec. 11.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2667.